LOS ANGELES -- Among the first things 16-year-old Donald "Trey" Brown III picked up while training at Teen Line in the spring was how to ask another child if they were contemplating suicide.
This question is crucial, counselors at the youth-run crisis hotline say. Asking it directly saves lives, by naming the intense and often unspeakable desire to die that now haunts almost a quarter of American high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"People who are not suicidal will be like, 'No, no, no, no, I would never do that,'" said Mendez, 16, one of the crisis line's volunteer "listeners," whom the organization asked to be identified only by her first name.
"But other people might say something like, 'Well, maybe...,'" she went on. "A lot of people will test the waters to make sure you're a safe person" to tell.
Because suicide is impulsive, the jump from inchoate longing to lethal intent can be sudden, the leap from intent into action even faster, studies show.
"One study found that 71% of attempts happened within an hour or less of [someone] making the decision, and a quarter were five minutes or less," said Janel Cubbage, a suicidologist and prevention expert.
Yet as California's teen suicide rate has spiked, school administrators have shied from the word. Now many all but forbid the acknowledgment of student suicides, despite state laws mandating evidence-based suicide prevention and decades of evidence proving silence causes harm.
"The No. 1 myth I've dealt with forever is, 'If we talk about it, it's going to happen,'" said Dr. Richard Lieberman, lead suicide prevention expert for Los Angeles County's Office of Education, who also works closely with Teen Line.
Lieberman and other experts are adamant: Most suicides can be prevented. For adolescents, prevention often starts with other teens.
"Kids tell other kids what they're gonna do," Lieberman said.
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